When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Mars Odyssey spacecraft headed off to the red planet in April, it was equipped with an instrument developed in part by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
"This instrument will be useful to measure radiation in possible future manned missions to Mars," said Steve Thompson, in Pacific Northwest's engineering physics group. Without the protection of the Earth's atmosphere in space, radioactive particles thrown off by the sun and stars could pass through people's bodies and potentially cause harm.
In a cooperative effort, Pacific Northwest built the hardware and NASA supplied the software for the device nicknamed MARIE, for Mars Radiation Environment Experiment.
One goes up, another comes down
A related radiation measurement device invented by Pacific Northwest in the mid 1990s went down with the Russian Mir space station in March.
With nearly 30 years' experience in developing radiation measurement technologies, the Laboratory produced a device that can measure the types and varying levels of cosmic rays encountered during the course of a flight.
The "tissue equivalent proportional counter" simulates the nucleus of a human cell and records the energy deposited and resulting tissue damage as cosmic radiation passes through the body's cells. In addition to Mir, these detectors have been standard equipment on space shuttle missions since 1996 and are used on the international space station.
Battelle, which manages Pacific Northwest for the U.S. Department of Energy, transferred the technology to Far West Technologies. Far West is customizing a device for commercial airlines in Europe that are interested in tracking and limiting crews' exposure to cosmic rays.
The Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.